Machine Builder Research and Buying Study 2011

Sign of the Times: Wider Adoption of Web-Based, Digital Tools Usage Is Cruising Ahead

By Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief

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March 2011By 2006, with better websites and greater bandwidth, web-based product-research options had emerged as legitimate alternatives to traditional product catalog and distributor-centric methods for machine-automation specifiers. That's the year we first asked the Control Design audience about its preferences.

In 2007 and 2008, we began to track their affinities for video, podcasts, blogs and other tools for doing product research. This year, we asked about newly emerging web-based tools as well.

In addition to letting you know the consensus product research tendencies of your peers, we also use what we learn to get a better idea of how to present content that helps you do your job. It also brings out issues that some companies in the supplier community address to try to better serve your needs.

Digital Tools Destinations

As with many industry studies, longer-term changes can be more illustrative than year-to-year comparisons that probably include some misleading data spikes or dips in certain research-preference categories. We see there's been slowly growing affinity for use of some of the digital tool choice trends over the four years we've monitored them (Table I).

In 2008, 16% of respondents said they used webcasts occasionally. This year it's 29%—and that's a bump of 6 points compared with 2010, with the biggest support (44%) coming from the 30-39 year-old study participants. Although there's been no change in those who claim more frequent use than monthly, those who say you've never used webcasts for your job dropped to 5% compared with 26% in 2008. An open-ended question about which of these delivery vehicles provides the most help made it clear that the participants overwhelmingly prefer an on-demand webcast option. In addition, worries about the event being just a product fluff piece keep many of the respondents from trying them out.

Although podcasts remain unused by nine of 10 respondents even at an occasional-use level, that frequency has doubled since 2008. And those who stated no use at all plummeted from about half the respondents in 2008 to around 5% this year.

Product videos and machine automation videos have a long way to go before they'll be considered a mainstream tool for this audience, but use at an occasional level has grown to more than one in three, compared with about one in seven in 2008.

The four-year trend for blogs remains mixed, and this year age-dependent. Although this group of respondents still makes little regular use of them, the group that says it uses blogs at least once or twice a year has grown to nearly 40% from 30% in 2008, mostly drawing recruits from the group that says they never use blogs for their jobs. The "never" group stands now at 11%, a significant change from a 29% group contribution in 2008. Only 6% of the 50-59ers use blogs occasionally or more, compared with 32% of 40-49ers and 42% of the 30-39ers.

Asked what they considered the best non-vendor website for their product research, most of the respondents couldn't name one, and defaulted back to Google. "I have not found one. No automation or control magazine would dare talk bad about a potential ad revenue generator or face legal battles," said one. "So it is nearly impossible to get the real facts in a Consumer  Reports-like evaluation. Instead, you're left to forums where people's opinions are of little factual help." Another commenter said, "How is anything considered a non-vendor site when essentially vendor ads pay for all these sites?"

One participant's comments also summarized the thoughts of many of the responders: "Webcasts are good, but they take a long time, they're usually biased towards a certain vendor, and they often trigger a flood of junk email after you register for one. Forums and bulletin boards are often outdated and not moderated, so there's a lot of bad information out there from self-proclaimed 'experts.' We're not allowed to use Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn on the company network. Technical information/videos/manuals from the manufacturers and vendors are usually the most current, relevant sources of information."

We've reached a critical-mass use point with these digital tools so we can begin to ask about more-specific use in future studies and draw some defendable conclusions.

This year, we asked about more-recently emerging social media as information delivery tools. Almost 80% of the respondents don't use Twitter for any purpose, and only 3% report occasional or more frequent use.

Facebook shows similar results, except three in 10 do say they have Facebook activities outside of their jobs. As more companies raise their visibility via Facebook, perhaps we'll see an increase in job-related activity moving forward more quickly than the other digital tool options have. It's only among the less-than-40-year-old respondents that we find any (12%) weekly job-related Facebook use.

"As an electrical and controls engineering consulting firm, social media allowed us to reach out to clients locally, and prospective clients outside our usual territory of the Pacific Northwest," responded Josh Sherman of Trindera Engineering, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. "Our company shares current projects, services, presentations, photographs and fliers on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Followers view our posts and comment that they weren't aware Trindera worked on a certain project or provided a certain service, and new teaming arrangements are born."

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